Over the years, I’ve been a fan of a lot of different music styles. From the queens of pop to the angsty pop-rock bands, I’ve had plenty of music tastes but none of them has captivated me the way K-pop has.
In the past few years, thanks in part to the immense popularity of boy group BTS, K-pop has become a global phenomenon and I can unashamedly admit it has completely taken over my life.
It all started one dreary January day in 2018 when I stumbled upon a Billboard article on Twitter, listing down their writers’ favourite K-pop songs of 2017. I had listened to a few K-pop songs in the past – Be My Baby by Wonder Girls and I Am The Best by 2NE1 – so I decided to dip in and see if it was as I remembered. It was not.
I went through the list of music videos (or MVs as they are labelled in K-pop) and was sucked in immediately. I made my first K-pop playlist on Spotify on January 13, 2018 and I have compiled hours and hours worth of them, adding new songs as they are released or as I find them and listening to not much else (barring the latest Little Mix or Ariana Grande albums, of course).
The first few songs I heard were Dreamcatcher’s debut Chase Me, EXO’s Ko Ko Bop and the sickeningly sweet song Wee Woo from the now disbanded Pristin. And while I credit Wee Woo as being the song that really kicked off my K-pop obsession, it was the four-member girl group Blackpink that really stole my heart.
As If It’s Your Last – their all-pink and cute 2017 comeback – was their first song I heard and I wanted more immediately. After watching the MV I went back through their past releases and enjoyed them all just as much as AIIYL. Back then, they only had five songs and I played the hell out of them. Even in those five songs, the girls – Jisoo, Jennie, Rosé and Lisa – showed me that they could do it all. From the moody Whistle, to the powerful Boombayah and the soft ballad Stay, I was hooked and still am now.
A lot of people may wonder how a 20-something guy from the UK who speaks no Korean could possibly enjoy K-pop, but music is so much more than the language the lyrics are in. Just look at Despacito – that song got played to death around the world and nobody questioned it. K-pop, to me, is positivity. Of course there are the sad songs, but most K-pop releases are powerful, positive and happy.
I struggle silently with my mental health, and especially have done over the past few years, and K-pop and Blackpink immediately take me out of that negative headspace. How can anyone feel down when they’re hit in the face with the brightest colours you’ve ever seen, the most uplifting melodies and some of the most beautiful people dancing around as they sing? Yes – I often don’t know what they’re singing about, but that doesn’t matter to me. The styling, the music, the visuals in the MVs – I can’t feel bad when I’m experiencing K-pop.
In some of my darkest mental headspaces, K-pop – but specifically Blackpink – have got me thinking the right way again. And that’s because there is a constant excitement when you’re a K-pop fan.
The industry works slightly different to the Western world, in that groups or soloists often release mini-albums or single albums a few times a year rather than one album a year and three or four singles from it. Months go in between these comebacks (a lot of months for Blackpink) but knowing that your favourite will have new music coming soon is something that really keeps me going.
Groups drop teaser images which reveal the concept for the release, then MV teasers, lyric spoilers, album highlights all before finally dropping the MV and rest of the tracks on streaming services.
It’s the same with debuts from new groups and soloists. There’s the feeling of anticipation that you’re about to witness something great that gets you on-side before the first full song has even been released.
Last year, I could tell I was going to be a fan of Everglow just from the teaser photos revealing the six members of the group, and in just over 12 months they’ve become one of my favourite groups. It was the same for Itzy, who are already one of the most popular K-pop girl groups globally, even charting on Billboard’s brand new Global 200 upon its launch.
In the days and weeks leading up to a comeback from one of my favourite groups or soloists – right now Blackpink, Dreamcatcher, Itzy, Everglow and Chungha – they’re genuinely all I can think about. Why, you might ask, when “K-pop all sounds the same”? With each new comeback or debut comes a different concept.
I primarily listen to girl groups, and the recurring concepts I am drawn to are “girl crush” – think badass girls who don’t need a man – “cute” – which is quite self-explanatory and often has a bubblegum pop sound – and “sexy” which is also self-explanatory but I find sides more with female empowerment than trying to attract a man.
The styling of the group changes, with members having complete makeovers (their poor hair!) every couple of months. The members (somehow) improve in their singing, rapping and dancing. And, quite frankly, it means there is about to be a whole lot more content to enjoy.
Being a Blackpink fan can be difficult at times as, unlike most of the top girl groups, they released just one mini-album a year between 2017 and now. And while some fans – known as Blinks – complained and got angry with their entertainment agency YG, it just made me more excited.
Luckily, 2020 really has been the year in which we were fed by Blackpink, with their first full-length album finally being confirmed four years after they debuted. With that came the news that there would be two pre-release singles – How You Like That and Ice Cream – as well as the collaboration on Lady Gaga’s Chromatica, Sour Candy. The anticipation becomes a frenzy when the music video drops, reminding every single Blink why they first fell in love with the girl group.
It truly feels like you are part of something, being a fan of Blackpink. There’s a mutual level of appreciation between the girls and us fans. They work so, so hard to try and achieve perfection, training for years and years in their early teens in some cases before they can debut in a group.
The work never stops either, despite trolling or injury. Jennie, for example, was attacked online for being “lazy” when, in reality, she had suffered an ankle injury and also struggles with things like vertigo and tinnitus. But the girls never stop, and, to show our appreciation, fans work hard to get Blackpink recognised.
When the highly anticipated Ddu-Du Ddu-Du was released in 2018, it racked up 36.2million views on YouTube in its first 24 hours. A year later, Kill This Love broke their record with 56.7million. This year, How You Like That scored 86.3million and Ice Cream, which features Selena Gomez, got 79million. Their fans have made their videos the most watched K-pop videos in the first 24 hours a number of times, with only BTS outdoing them.
Similarly, while another of my favourite groups Dreamcatcher aren’t as widely recognised, the same mutual appreciation is there. Their latest comeback mini-album Dystopia: Lose Myself broke their album sales records just two days after it was released. Dreamcatcher fans – Insomnia – work relentlessly to get the group their first music show win too, often topping the global vote category each week.
Seeing your favourite artists do well and growing with each new release is so satisfying to see. And knowing that you are working to try and make them even more successful really makes me feel part of something too.
My bedroom is slowly but surely being taken over by physical K-pop albums. I stopped buying CDs years ago because of iPods and Spotify. I have never listened to any of my currently 50+ collection, but that won’t stop me buying them. As an international fan, I find it’s just one way I can support the groups I enjoy, and I love it.
Similarly, on the rare occasion that a K-pop group tours the UK, going to their concerts is another way – and definitely the most fulfilling.
I’ve been fortunate enough to see soloist Hyolyn, Blackpink and Dreamcatcher live in London and each one changed my life in some way.
The Hyolyn concert will always be special to me as it was the first K-pop artist I had seen live since becoming a fan, assuming I would never get the chance to see any perform live unless I went to South Korea.
With Dreamcatcher, I had the chance of being in the small concert hall during the sound check, was at the barrier through the gig and got to meet them the next day too.
But the Blackpink concert will forever stick with me. It almost never happened due to a mix up with tickets, and just the day before it was all confirmed and I was going. I was wearing my Blackpink T-shirt, heading to the Tube to go to Wembley Arena. Then there was a problem with the Jubilee line and it didn’t seem like it was getting fixed. I waited on the train until I really couldn’t wait any longer and left the station, got an Uber to another station with a Tube line I could use, rushing through stations all while worrying I would miss their opening song, Ddu-Du Ddu-Du.
Luckily, I made it, and the excitement in the arena was mind-blowing. Everyone was there to see Blackpink and everyone was singing along to their tracks, which were playing to hype up the crowd. As soon as the opening beats of D4 started, I remember my whole body tingling. I had never thought I’d get to see Blackpink live, so I knew this was about to be some of the most special few hours of my life.
When they got around to playing As If It’s Your Last, I genuinely believe I was the happiest I have ever been. It was the song that got me into the group and the one I’d been most excited to see them perform. Still now, when I listen to that song, I am taken back to that specific moment. Right then, nothing mattered to me.
Anything I was worried about in the “real world” vanished. It was me, surrounded by people like me who loved these four singers, seeing them bounce off the vibe from the audience. It really was one of the favourite memories I have in my life, something that changed my life for the better, and something that takes me to a good place whenever I need it to.
Written by Jack Wetherill